Province’s cannabis PSAs promote fear rather than harm reduction: professor

The Manitoba government has released two public service announcements on the risks associated with using cannabis, but a local researcher says the messaging overstates facts and flies in the face of harm reduction.

One of the PSAs, published on the Manitoba government’s YouTube page on Sept.28, suggests using street cannabis “could put your life at risk” while a second PSA published the same day states using cannabis will “affect brain development, lower IQ, impair critical thinking, affect learning ability and impair judgement, ” with the visual for the video displaying an incorrect answer to a simple math equation ( 3+3=7).

One of the videos titled ‘Street Cannabis – Isn’t worth the risk’ shows a skull above an ‘X’ formed out of two joints. 

Lynda Balneaves, an associate professor in the college of nursing at University of Manitoba, said the campaign promotes fear of cannabis rather than harm reduction.

“I wouldn’t have necessarily gone with the skull and crossbone messaging,” said Balneaves. “We know that that kind of fear campaign hasn’t been effective when you look at the war on drugs in the United States.

“A much better approach would be harm reduction, talking about the potential effects and how to avoid the risks if you’re going to be using cannabis. I’m not sure that this kind of messaging is going to be that effective.”

Balneaves said much of the messaging in the ‘Street Cannabis’ video is correct but said the statement “it could be put your life at risk” is hypothetical and likely refers to the potential of cannabis from illicit sources being contaminated by other drugs, such as fentanyl.

“To date, we have not had any reports in Canada that this has actually happened,” said Balneaves. “And the risk of overdose death from cannabis products is nil – there can be acute intoxication, but the only deaths attributable to cannabis have been a consequence of psychosis caused by high-THC products, most likely edibles.”

The second PSA, which states using cannabis can impact brain development, is also correct but Balneaves said the Lower Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines suggest use before age 16 is most problematic, whereas the evidence surrounding cannabis use and IQ is contradictory.

“Some suggest it lowers it, some suggest it stays the same,” said Balneaves. “We have not seen a definitive link between IQ and cannabis.

“Suggesting someone’s not going to be able to add, three plus three equals seven, might be a bit severe.”

Emily Jenkins, an assistant professor in the school of nursing at the University of British Columbia, had a similar take on the suggestion that using street cannabis could put your life at risk.

“We don’t have evidence that someone’s died of an overdose from cannabis,” said Jenkins. “It lacks the nuance that’s necessary to interpret the messaging in a meaningful way.”

Balneaves said more research is needed to understand the effects of cannabis use which she said could become easier with the legalization of recreational marijuana.

A provincial spokesperson said the information used in the videos was based on Manitoba Health research and Canada’s Lower Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines.

“Because government is focused on public health and safety ahead of legalization, we wanted to focus on some of the risks related to cannabis so Manitobans can make informed choices,” said an emailed statement from the province. “While there may be a perception that cannabis is harmless, we wanted to ensure we communicated the risks, particularly to young people and pregnant women, to encourage Manitobans to be informed and reduce their risk of cannabis-related harms. 

The videos are running online and in movie theatres except for movies which are G-rated.